Community learning U-turn for Somerset after ‘rollercoaster’ decade

Grant funding to return to county council later this year

Grant funding to return to county council later this year

Community learning in Somerset will return to the control of the county council later this year in a government U-turn following a decade of upheaval. 

Somerset County Council’s training arm Somerset Skills & Learning (SS&L) transferred as a “community interest company” in 2015. It was part of a social enterprise experiment under the coalition government to consolidate skills and resident support funding streams from various government departments.

However the wheels quickly fell off after Vince Cable, business secretary at the time, lost his seat at the 2015 general election and the Conservatives won a majority.

The then-Skills Funding Agency put the community learning contract out to tender. Other departments followed, leaving funding for SS&L at jeopardy for every funding cycle.

SS&L ultimately became a private training provider and has been subject to multiple controversial rejections for adult education funding in recent years, forcing the company to make redundancies

The provider holds a £2.5 million contract for community learning in Somerset, but it is procured by the Education and Skills Funding Agency instead of the council.

In an update last week, ESFA said this approach is “out of step with the rest of England, where community learning funding is grant funded”.

“Therefore, from academic year 2023 to 2024, DfE are proposing to revert to grant funding Somerset County Council, bringing funding provision for Somerset Community Learning in line with the rest of the country,” a spokesperson said. 

SS&L will continue to operate as a private training provider and have to bid for the contract through the council. 

Devolution plans in the region meant the council and SS&L anticipated the decision but were blindsided by the implementation.

Kathryn Baker, chief executive of SS&L, said the timing was “really, really challenging” for the both the provider and the local authority. She said reverting to the council in August 2024, for example, would have allowed time for the council to put the necessary infrastructure in place.

 “From a community point of view the timing is an issue because it’s a risk to the continuity of the provision. Who should be planning? We are currently delivering the contract, curriculum planning traditionally starts around about now, so that’s quite a challenge. Without at least a year’s lead in, how does the programme continue? For us it is lack of time to change our business model,” she said.

 A spokesperson for Somerset County Council said: “We are working with DfE to consider the implications of the change and appreciate it may be unsettling for the current provider. We are keen to ensure that continued benefit to the people of Somerset is secured via this important source of funding.”

Sue Pember, a former director of FE funding in the Department for Education who is now the policy director of adult education network HOLEX, said returning grant funding to the council was the “ESFA trying their best to make good on the past”.

She described the 2015 move as a “brilliant idea”, adding that it was unfortunate the way events turned out for SS&L which, “by no fault of their own, really has been caught in a mire of procurement rules for the last few years, even though the original spin off out of the council was something that the Cabinet Office and Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills encouraged”.

Pember added: “Since then, it has been really quite difficult for the spin off to operate. I hope that the right thing is done and SS&L gets the contract.”

Baker described the best part of the last decade as a “rollercoaster” and “not an easy space to be in”.

She and her team are now working on a new business model ahead of the grant funding reversal.

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